Lion

Winging It 19-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly how I expected my time with Lucent to go. But then, since when had anything gone the way that I had thought it would since the night I decided to play around in Royal Thunder? The expected thing happening would be completely unexpected. Which was–never mind. I really couldn’t look at that too closely or I’d go cross-eyed. 

In any case, we were going to have to try that again another time. For the moment, I put it aside along with thoughts about Carousel and her whole deal as I pressed the buzzer at the back door of Wren’s shop. There were plenty of other things for me to focus on as it was. Like talking to Paige (and Raige, come to think of it), or figuring out what was up with that sex-shifting Asian person Amber had been talking about, and–

Wait, hold on. Back when Izzy and I had first found out about each other, my father had been right below us, talking with someone on the phone in Japanese. Was that related to this? It… could be, right? Not for the first time, I wished one of us spoke Japanese. 

Shaking off that thought, I focused on the other question. Namely, why Mr. Jackson had been there in the first place. Yeah, that was going to bug me for awhile. My best idea for getting information about that was to go hang out with Tomas at his house for awhile and try to sneak off to snoop around. Yes, that would probably be dangerous. And yet, if I didn’t start taking a few risks to get answers, I’d never get anywhere. 

I was still debating back and forth with myself about that when Murphy (still masked) opened the door. “Hey, boss,” she greeted me. “You’ve got to come in here and see this meeting of the minds shit. I have no idea what the fuck is going on, but damn if it’s not fascinating to watch.” 

So, I followed her in there and got my first glimpse of the, as she put it, ‘meeting of the minds shit.’ Wren was seated cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the shop, down in the slightly lower area next to the four counters that formed the rectangle. She was perched next to one of those counters. In front of her was what looked like a cardboard diorama of the shop itself,  made out of repurposed individual size cereal boxes. There were three different dioramas, actually. One that showed the outside, one of the shop floor, and one of the upper floor. They had everything in there, the shelves, the tables, the very same counters Wren was sitting next to, the fire hydrants and benches outside, the rooms upstairs, and so on. All of it represented in cardboard. 

Lion was there too, of course. She was perched right in the middle of the diorama of the outside area, using one paw to point at a park bench while going on at length about some sort of pneumatic system they could… do something with. Which sent Wren off on a whole three-hundred word spiel, of which I understood maybe half the words and about a tenth of how they actually fit together in the way she was saying. 

Okay yeah, this was confusing. I had no idea what they were talking about. Which really, for the first time, really drove home how Wren wasn’t a normal kid. Yes, yes, I’d already known that of course. The stuff she made proved it quite well. But I supposed that up to that point, somewhere in my head, I just saw what she did as something like magic, like she just touched something and poof, it became her inventions. Which was dumb, because I’d already helped her with collecting stuff for the suit that we made Ashton wear so he would lead us to the vials against his will. I’d even helped put it together, in the sense of doing exactly what she told us to do. I’d seen her power in action and knew, for a fact, how it worked. At least, to an extent. 

But this was really my first time seeing it put this way. Probably because it was the first time I’d had a chance to see the girl talk to someone who was on her level. Which was about fifty stories above my level, apparently. The two of them were babbling back and forth at each other in what might as well have been a completely different language for all that I could follow it. 

Murphy, who had been watching as I stared that way, gestured emphatically. “See what I mean? No freaking clue what they’re on about, but it seems pretty spiffy.” Belatedly, she added, “You like the dioramas? Calvin and me did those. See, we do contribute.” 

Calvi–oh, right. She’d given fake names for Roald and herself as Calvin and Hobbes. Which, to be honest, I was pretty sure it would have fit better if she flipped the names. At least, character-wise. She was much more of a Calvin to me. 

In any case, I wasn’t going to go judging her pseudonym choices at the moment. Instead, I gave a slow nod, before blinking. “Where is R–Calvin, anyway? And Fred.” 

“Shopping,” came the easy reply. “They had to go out and get some stuff that these guys asked for. They told me what it was, but you know.” She made a motion and whistled low to illustrate the information going in one ear and out the other. “No idea. They took the list with them. It was a long list.” She pulled her phone out to look at the time. “They only left about twenty minutes ago, so… yeah, probably gonna be awhile before they come back. I–hey.” 

Squinting at something on her phone, Murphy looked at me, then to the screen and back again. I couldn’t read her expression through the ski mask, but her body language made it clear she was confused. Finally, the girl tapped the phone pointedly before asking, “You stopped a bank robbery? I thought you were like, doing Master Splinter Miyagi shit with Captain Corvid.” 

I started to correct the other girl that it was Lucent, not Captain Corvid, then reconsidered. Given everything I’d seen of him, he’d probably actually be amused by the title. So I let that go before shrugging. “It was a little more complicated than that. We stopped one set of bank robbers, but there was…” I trailed off, my instinct to say as little as possible kicking in while the girl stared at me in anticipation. My whole deal of compartmentalizing information for so long meant that it was just instinct to not actually explain what had happened back there. But why shouldn’t I? Seriously, nothing in what had happened actually gave away anything I didn’t want to share. Why was I being so hesitant to talk about it? Was it just because I was pretty sure the entire event was connected to my family, considering all the Star-Touched patrols had been moved away from the area? Was even the slightest hint of a connection to my family enough to make me instinctively clam up? 

Apparently so, but I forced the impulse down and held up a hand for Murphy to wait a moment while I looked back to where Wren and Lion were. The two of them didn’t even seem to have noticed my arrival, considering how engrossed in their discussion they were. Another few seconds of listening proved entirely fruitless, as I was pretty sure they weren’t even using real words by that point. They were, however, finishing each other’s sentences and laughing a lot. It wasn’t… quite mad scientist laughter, but pretty close to the edge of it.

Yeah, I was going to let them keep doing the, uh, whatever they were doing. Turning away, I gestured for Murphy to come with as I moved away from that area and closer to the elevator. Stopping there, I quietly told her what actually happened, at least as far as someone without any of my extra knowledge would know from being there. I told her about the extra bad guys, the tunnel, finding our way to where Sandon and her men were waiting to back up Undermine, and about the agreement to back off and let them go rather than start a big fight right there.

“So,” I finally finished, “does that totally destroy your vision of me as a hero for letting the bad guys escape with everything they took?” 

A snort escaped the girl as she gave me a look. “Yeah, you’ve shattered my poor, delicate and bright-eyed naivety and opened me up to the harsh, gray world.” Clasping her hands, she gave a heavy, dramatic sigh. “Gone forever are my dreams of Paintball, stalwart champion of the people, unwavering protector of all that is good as he stands alone against the forces of–Ow! Did you just kick me?” 

Painting an innocent face across my helmet (complete with halo), I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You know how it is around Tech-Touched bases. Lots of weird half-finished inventions lying around. Maybe we set something off.” 

“Oh, we set something off alright,” she retorted, squinting at me before snickering. “Anyway, come on, you can’t honestly think that shit would change anything as far as me and R–” She leaned up on her toes to stare in the direction of Lion and Wren. Apparently Murphy didn’t trust that the mouse couldn’t hear, because she amended, “–Calvin are concerned. We didn’t go looking to work for some dumb Star-Touched paragon, you know? You asked us to work for you. That’s what we’re doing, it’s what we wanna do. At least you’re smarter than some of those wannabes out there. Gotta know when to fold your cards and walk away.”

Biting my lip, I watched her for a moment before shaking my head. “Right, at least it hasn’t changed your opinion of me or anything.” 

She, in turn, offered a wide, exaggerated shrug. “You’re the boss, boss. I uh, I know we joke about the whole minions thing, but seriously. You’re giving us a chance to make some cash and sorta, you know, move up a bit. You’re the one we’re loyal to. I mean, you and Trevithick over there. Long as you don’t start doing evil shit, or really fucking stupid shit, or… a few other kinds of shit, we’re here. Not starting a stupid, pointless fight you probably couldn’t win just to save some random rich fucks’ stolen goodies? Come on. If anything, my opinion of you just went up a little bit. But uh, don’t let that go to your head.”

“I’ll do my best to keep my ego under control,” I replied dryly. “And thanks, Hobbes. Glad to know I didn’t just lose Trev’s very best new sweeper and mopper for her.” 

“And duster, don’t forget that,” she retorted before lowering her voice into a faintly distressed, “Seriously, there is so much dust.” 

Smirking despite myself behind the helmet, I gave her a thumbs up. “I’ll try to remember to include that on your new job plaque. But uh, think you could stick around down here and keep an eye on what’s going on over there while I go upstairs for a few?” 

“Whatever,” came her response. “Trust me, boss, I’ve got plenty of shit down here to keep myself busy.  I’m pretty sure those two are going to be just fine without any help from me or anyone else. But you go do your thing. I’ll feel better with you here, anyway. If they manage to send this building into another universe or something with their super-science shit, at least you’ll be around to do something about all the alien monsters trying to lay eggs in our brains.” 

Painting a weirded-out face on my helmet squinting at her, I slowly replied, “Yeah, I’ll uhh, keep an eye out for that.” My head shook as I gave a soft chuckle before starting to turn to the elevator. Then I stopped and pivoted back. “What’s going on with Tyson? That was your brother’s name, right? The one who gave you that cut on the head because you wouldn’t run drugs for him. You still staying with Calvin or did you go back there?” 

Folding her arms defensively across her chest, the girl muttered, “I couldn’t stay with his family forever. It’s fine, it’s–whatever. Tyson’s fine. I’m here, ain’t I? I told you I wouldn’t let shit with my brother fuck this up, and I won’t.  You don’t have to worry about him. It’s fine. He took me out to get some lunch and apologized and all that. Not a big deal.” 

“Not a big deal?” I echoed incredulously despite myself. “I know you care about him, but he cut your face because you wouldn’t take a bunch of drugs over to his friend. Now it’s okay because he took you out to lunch?” 

“Fuck no,” she snapped, “it’s not okay. None of that is okay. Like I said, his friend got him hooked on the shit. He used to be totally cool, just a normal stoner, you know? Little weed now and then. Maybe a little more than now and then, but still. Weed. Nothing hard. He was funny when he got the munchies. Used to send Calvin and me out to pick up shit from the gas station in the middle of the night. Then that fuckface got him on the harder shit and… and he changed. But he’s still my brother. He’s fine most of the time. I can deal with it. So just, you know, do whatever shit you need to do upstairs and let me worry about my brother.” 

I had the distinct impression that trying to say anything else about it wouldn’t go very well. Still, I made a mental note to ask Roald for a little more information about that whole thing when I had the chance. Then I nodded to her before stepping on the elevator. All I said to the girl before the doors closed was, “Let me know if anything happens down here. Especially if those two manage that whole going to another universe thing. You have blanket permission to interrupt anything I’m doing if that happens.” 

With that, I hit the button to head upstairs, before stepping off a moment later once we were there. After giving a brief glance up and down the hall, I headed for the lab workshop area. Paige was still there, though she had been moved out of the MRI-like machine and was laying on a couch nearby. Someone had put a pillow under her head, and a blanket over her, so it looked like she was just sleeping. Which at least made the whole thing look a little less creepy. 

I needed to get this done, of course. And yet, for a moment, I just stood there and hesitated. A rush of thoughts ran through my mind as I stared at the motionless and silent form of the girl who had been forced by her father to treat me like shit for so long, but I pushed them aside to focus on the important thing. Which was asking Paige about this Irelyn chick. 

I wasn’t sure how to run the whole virtual reality thing, of course. And I sure wasn’t going to attempt it by myself. But there was still the other way of communicating with Paige. I picked up the Gameboy-like device and carefully wrote in the question, one word at a time, about ten minutes apart. 

SISTER

LOOKING

4PAIGE

That simple thing took about thirty minutes to send. It definitely wasn’t as convenient as the VR system. But on the other hand, I could use it without help and not risk blowing the whole building up or something. Now I just had to settle in and wait for however long it took Paige to send back a response. 

Not that long, apparently. The response came within about thirty seconds. But it didn’t come through the Gameboy-Atari thing like I had expected. Instead, Paige’s actual voice abruptly spoke up. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, I’m not too proud to admit that I jumped. I had been sitting on one of the nearby chairs while thinking about what I should do while I was waiting, and damn near leapt out of my skin when the frozen girl started talking. A yelp actually escaped me before I got it under control and looked that way. Her eyes were still closed and she clearly still wasn’t moving. “Uh, Paige?” 

“She’s letting me talk directly to you right now, for this,” came the response. “Talk and listen, no moving. Slight control. So tell me what’s going on.” 

Before I could respond, she abruptly spoke again. Only it clearly wasn’t Paige this time. “Yeah, babe, just a little slack in the agreement since this seems like something we might want to nip in the bud before it turns into a problem. But I don’t exactly trust this one to hold even this little bit of power for very long without abusing it, so get to the explaining part.” 

So, I did just that, carefully explaining everything that I knew. I told them both about being stopped outside the restaurant by that Irelyn woman, though I left out the whole thing about Arleigh and her brothers being there, since it didn’t seem relevant. I explained that the woman was clearly looking pretty intently for Paige if she was asking me about it, and that it didn’t seem like something she was just going to walk away from, satisfied with half-answers. 

“So, I’ve gotta ask,” I finally put in once the actual explanation was over, “How come you never mentioned that you still had a sister who was going to start poking around asking questions about you and your parents disappearing? Cuz that whole fake vacation thing can hold up to some outside poking, but I’m pretty sure it won’t last long with someone like that looking into it.”

There was no response at first. And given the position Paige was in with the whole laying completely motionless with her eyes closed thing, I honestly wasn’t sure for a moment that she had even heard what I said.  

Finally, however, Paige spoke once more. “She didn’t really care.” Her voice was odd, like… well, I couldn’t really place it at first. There was something in her tone that didn’t sound like her. For as long as I remembered knowing Paige, she had almost always sounded confident. Whether it came to tormenting me as much as possible, being the popular girl everyone else looked up to, or handling a bunch of biolems sent by her father to kill both of us, she was self-assured. But now? This almost sounded like… vulnerability? Uncertainty? Confusion? All of the above. And more. There was a lot in her voice. But none of it was confidence. 

“She was their real daughter, before they got pissed and disowned her because she didn’t want to be the exact person they wanted her to be. She did her own thing, so they threw her out of the family and bought me instead. I was the replacement. I wasn’t–I’m not her real sister. Why would she start going around looking for me? That doesn’t–I can’t…” 

She trailed off for several long moments before her voice finally spoke again. But once more, it wasn’t Paige. “Uhh yeah, you’re gonna have to give us some time with this. I think you got the gist of her reaction though. We’ve got no clue why a girl who was disowned from the family and replaced like that would give two shits about what happened to the parents or the adopted sister. Give that some time to digest and come back in a couple days, maybe we’ll be able to tell you something else. Send the word Aardvark to let us know you’re back and want to talk about that whole thing and we’ll do this again.”

I really hadn’t expected Paige to be quite that stunned by the news that Irelyn had been out there looking for her. But, I supposed that was fair. She deserved the chance to think about that for a bit. It was clearly a lot to dump on her, especially if she was so taken aback and lost in her own thoughts that Raige was talking. 

So, I straightened up. “Yeah, I’ll give you some time. I just–” Pausing, I shifted indecisively, unsure if I should ask. Finally, I went for it. “What actually happened to your parents? I mean, where… I mean, did they… I mean…”

“We don’t know what happened to them, exactly,” came Raige’s response. “I mean, it’s not hard to make a guess that Daddy dearest wanted them out of the way, but how he went about that, how… permanent it is, all that, no idea. They weren’t there when the party thing got started, that’s all we know.” 

That didn’t exactly make me feel better about the Banners’ fates in general. But at least I could trust that Paige herself hadn’t killed them. Still, I frowned before rising to leave. “Thanks. I’ll let you guys talk about that whole sister thing amongst yourselves, and come back later.” 

With that, I left the room and headed down the stairs rather than use the elevator that time. Paige had clearly been completely shocked by the revelation that this Irelyn woman was out there looking for her, to the point that she completely stopped responding and left Raige to do the talking. That… that was… I didn’t know what that was. I may have had my… whole complicated situation with my family, but at least I would never be surprised that they wanted to find me if I went missing. Paige, on the other hand, had been so shocked that Irelyn was actually looking for her that she actually went silent. She had been completely stupefied by the simple fact that someone cared enough about her to look when she disappeared. Which was pretty big. And, I supposed, went with the fact that she hadn’t brought it up as a possibility, if she was that stunned by it. 

In any case, I’d go back and talk to both of them some more about that in a day or two. For now, I was going to set that aside and focus on other things. Namely, what was up with the sex-shifting Asian person Tomas’s dad had driven off with. Which meant I was going to have to go over there. 

Was it bad that I wasn’t sure which made my stomach feel worse about spending time around, the guy who had used his superpower to literally erase my memory, or my ex-boyfriend whom I still had feelings for and whose loyalties I had no idea about. Tomas still could’ve been nice to me, even dated me to begin with, just because of orders from his dad. That was… it was a thought that made me feel like curling into a ball and not doing anything for a long time. Instead, I was going to shove that deep down into a hole, then call him up and ask if he wanted to hang out at his place sometime. I was going to bury all my doubts and insecurities, all my feelings in general, and convincingly put myself around one guy who had already fucked around in my memories, and another who might have been manipulating my emotions for years.

You know what? I was starting to wish I had started that fight with Sandon. 

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Winging It 19-02 (Summus Proelium)

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As I had told Izzy, I wasn’t planning on going over to Wren’s place until after my whole thing with Lucent. But how could I possibly say no to Lion’s request to meet the girl? Well, okay, maybe Wren wouldn’t want to, and then I would say no. But something told me she wouldn’t.

Indeed, as I used my phone to call the girl in question and raised the subject, her answering squeal of joy made me flinch and wish that I could pull the Bluetooth thing away from my ear. It ahh, went on for a few seconds. Somewhere in the background, I heard the others quickly and repeatedly asking what was wrong. Oh, and they were also pleading with her to come down, so I could only imagine she had used her wing pack thing to fly up by the ceiling in her excitement.

“Trevithick!” I managed to cut in, glancing toward Lucent and Lion. From the way they both had their heads cocked as they looked toward me, I had the feeling they could hear at least part of that squeal and were amused. “Hey, if you really don’t want to meet her–” I started to tease. 

“No, no, no!” the kid immediately blurted. “I do! Yes, please! Bring her over! It’ll be great, it’ll be fun, are you serious? Is she really coming? It’s really the real Lion and she’ll come over?” 

Before I could respond to that, I heard a rather panicked Fred demand to know where Paintball had gotten a lion and why the hell I thought bringing it over there was a good idea. And that no, very firm no, absolutely no, she could not keep the lion. Also, was I/Paintball ‘completely nuts?’

Leaving Wren to explain the situation to her uncle for a moment, I looked at the two TONIs and cleared my throat before giving them a thumbs up. “I uh, think it’ll be okay. She’s really excited to meet you.” 

“And I to meet her,” Lion quickly assured me, tiny head bobbing up and down before jerking a bit to the side to watch as a car drove past in the distance. She turned just as sharply to look upward, and I glanced that way to see a bird flying past. The moment it had moved on and was no longer an immediate danger, her nose twitched and she snapped her head yet again, looking toward the gate nearby as a man walked out, heading down the sidewalk. 

Watching all that drove home just how vulnerable she must feel. She was even more intelligent than most humans, yet Lion was trapped in a body small and vulnerable enough that, without the armor she wore and her inventions for protection, a small human child could have killed her with a single kick. No wonder she was so nervous. And that didn’t even count all the actual predators out there who would have eaten her in an instant, without any regard for the things she could design and build. She had a mouse’s fearful instinct combined with a very intelligent understanding of just how vulnerable she could be. That must have been utterly terrifying. 

By that point, Wren had returned to the phone, her voice high with excitement as she urgently insisted that everything was fine and we should bring Lion over right now because she had so many things she wanted to ask about, and show her, and and and it went on. Yeah, she was basically losing her mind like a total fangirl at the very concept of meeting the mouse TONI. 

“Okay, okay,” I managed once I could get a word in edgewise. “But Trevithick, this is important. Do you want me to bring her to your shop directly, or do you want to meet her somewhere private?” I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew both she and the two in front of me would know what I was really asking. Which was, did she want Lion (and possibly Lucent) to know where her shop was and who she was, or did she want to keep her identity and place completely secret from them.  

In response, there was a pause. It told me that the kid was actually taking the question seriously, despite her excitement. I could picture her standing there, thoughtfully chewing her lip as she weighed the options back and forth a bit. “Hang on,” she finally replied. Then I heard her start a murmured conversation some distance away from the phone, talking to her uncle about it. And possibly to the others as well. Honestly, I was just glad she hadn’t dismissed the potential concern out of hand. Especially considering I still wasn’t completely positive that we could absolutely trust Lucent without question. Oh, I was pretty sure he was safe and all, but I wasn’t going to translate pretty sure into total certainty. Not when it came to something like my parents. 

Finally, the younger girl’s voice came back. “I want to ask her for ideas about protecting this place, so she should probably know where it is.” Unlike moments earlier, she was speaking calmly and rationally. It was clear she had put real thought into the answer. “It’ll be okay. ButI’mtotallywearingarealcostume!” The last bit came flooding out in a rush of words, followed by a lamenting squeal about how she had to find something good. 

Hoping that she was right about this being okay, I promised to be there soon, then disconnected and looked to the others “Well, guess it’s fine. You get to meet my friend, Trevithick. But umm, keep everything you find out to yourselves, please?” I wasn’t sure how to ask Lucent not to go as well. Despite the voice whispering in the back of my head that I can’t be certain he wasn’t compromised by the Ministry, I just couldn’t find the right words without being completely suspicious and rude. 

Fortunately, it turned out I didn’t have to find any words. Lucent himself gave what was the best bird-approximation of a bow. “I believe the invitation was for Lady Lion herself. Far be it from me to overstep. Perhaps you should take our exceptional friend here to meet this Trevithick, then meet me in some neutral location for our own training session while they converse?”

A swell of relief ran through me while I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. Yeah, I can do that.” Of course, then the relief turned into uncertainty as I looked down at Lion. “Um, do you mind if I carry you, or… umm…” Yeah, given how justifiably nervous she was, this was pretty awkward.  

Lion, for her part, turned a bit. “Jared, could you come out here, please?” 

Jared? Blinking uncertainly, I turned. Lion must have been speaking through a communicator or something, because it took a minute before the gate opened and a man emerged. Not that I would have noticed him if he hadn’t been the only person coming into view. In a crowd, he would have basically vanished completely. He looked completely ordinary and average in every conceivable way. He wasn’t short, and he wasn’t tall. He had dark hair with an unremarkable cut, his clothes were clean and might as well have been made by a company named Boring. He wore glasses, but they were so mundane that you would be forgiven for forgetting he had them at all five minutes after he walked away. The man seemed genetically predisposed to fade into the background of any situation, and everything he wore completely facilitated that. If I had seen this man in a crowd of people, I would have completely forgotten his existence a moment after they passed. Which, I was absolutely certain, was the intention. 

Stopping in front of us, the man offered a faint, polite smile. “Good morning,” he greeted me. 

“O-oh, umm, Paintball, this is ahh, my friend Jared,” Lion introduced us, raising one paw to gesture back and forth. “Jared, this ahh, this is Paintball. You uh, remember from the videos.”  

Videos? Oh God. As a pink flush of embarrassment crossed my hidden face, Jared gave a short nod and smiled at me. “You gave that demon guy a pretty good run across the city. Gave Lion and me a laugh, let me tell you.” 

Still blushing, I managed a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I sorta had to run away, considering I wasn’t really in the mood to let him dribble me off the ground and toss me in a dumpster. My name is Paintball, not basketball.” 

“He could do it too,” Jared agreed with a grimace. “Glad you got away. And made him look like a fool in the process. But I hope you’re being careful.” 

My head bobbed. “Believe me, I have a lot to be careful about, it’s not just him.” 

“Indeed,” Lucent put in, “You have proven yourself quite adept at a great many things. But perhaps none as much as your proclivity for making enemies very quickly. The Scions and their admirers will not simply go quietly into the night. You must remain vigilant, and aware of your surroundings. I–” He paused before shaking his little bird head. “I will not attempt to insist that you join a larger group, particularly not now that you have gone so far as to attract others to your side and given yourselves a name. But please, be as careful as possible. And do not hesitate to ask others for help should you need it. I, for one, will always stand ready to swoop in and lend a wing, so to speak.” His dark eyes seemed to stare straight through my visor. “All parental jokes aside, I will be there the moment you request it. You have more than earned that aid. Please, you are enough of a hero as it is. Should the need arise, ask for help.” 

Feeling embarrassed and uncertain under the intense scrutiny, I squirmed a bit on my feet before mumbling an agreement. Then I turned back to Lion, as the little mouse carefully asked Jared to take off the backpack he was wearing. As a testament to how utterly mundane the man and his clothing were, I hadn’t even noticed he had one. But there it was. He carefully took the thing off. It was very simple-looking, a brown and white bag with what looked like a cheap padlock and several zippers across it. At a glance, the bag didn’t look any different than what you’d see on any of a thousand different backs walking through an average high school. But something told me it was much more unique than that.  

Sure enough, Lion explained that the bag was a home away from home. It held screens and microphones she could watch and communicate through, and was shielded in general against damage. Plus, there was a mouse-sized holdout bunker in the bottom that was capable of standing up against an incredible amount of damage if things got really bad. 

“Oh, you want me to wear that while we go visit Trevithick?” I realized. 

Her little mouse head bobbed quickly, voice emerging from the speakers built into her armor. “If you wouldn’t mind? I don’t umm, ahhh, think it would be very comfortable in your pocket.” 

Jared spoke up then. “You’ll have to wear this too.” He extended a hand, showing me a small pin. It looked just like a little silver eagle or hawk, with black beads for eyes. Except they weren’t beads. They were the lens for a camera. Jared explained that if I clipped it to the front of my costume, Lion would be able to see what I could. She could also see behind me through cameras in the bag, but this was her way of keeping an eye on what was going on in front of us. 

So, I carefully put the pin on, and Jared helped the mouse into the bag. We made sure it was all working and she could see and communicate with me properly before Lucent promised to talk to Lion later, and reiterated that he would see me somewhere else after I dropped off Lion. We settled on the roof of a grocery store we both knew about, and my bird-dad went flying off. 

Feeling a hand on my shoulder, I turned it to find Jared looking at me intently. “You be careful with her,” he warned. “The bag’s protected, but don’t go chasing problems while she’s there.”  

Before I could respond, the mouse’s projected voice came through speakers in the bag. “It’s ahh, okay, Jared. I’m sure um, Paintball will be ahh very cautious about running after trouble. Um, right?” Her voice took on a slight note of worry, probably considering my reputation in that moment.

Coughing under Jared’s intense stare, I weakly protested, “Oh, come on, I’m sure I can go five minutes without chasing after horrible bad guys or tripping over a bunch of crazy violence.” 

“Um, if it’s only five minutes,” Lion’s voice piped up once more, “maybe we should, ahh, hurry?” 

Jared warned me again not to go crazy, and I gave him a thumbs up before carefully adjusting the bag on my back. Cinching it tight, I spoke up. “Let me know if I need to slow down or anything. And uhh, I’ll avoid doing any flips.” With that, I raised a hand to shoot a blob of red paint toward the corner of nearby street light, and launched myself upward through a mix of that and blue paint under my feet, releasing the red on my way up so that I shot past it and used another red shot on the roof of a building across the street. Then we were flying that way. 

Landing on the roof in a jog, I asked, “How’re you doing in there? Everything okay? I can slow down if you want, or just take it easy on the jolts.” We were approaching the edge of the roof, but I slowed down to give her time to respond before the next jump. 

To my relief, she immediately chirped, “It’s quite alright, Mr. Paintball. The ahh bunker bag was built to dampen inertia and umm, compensate for sudden motion. You would have to move much faster than that to have any sort of problem. But umm, just in case, this–” There was a loud ringing sound, like an old telephone.  “–means please stop, there’s a problem.” 

Holding my hand in front of the pin-camera, I gave her a thumbs up. “That’ll definitely get my attention. Right, in that case, hold on. Or, you know, brace yourself.” 

With that, I pushed off from where I had stopped a few feet from the edge of the roof. Painting my legs green, I use the burst of speed to get there in an instant before activating purple circles on my arms. Using the boosted strength, I launched myself out into open air, windmilling a bit  before sending another shot of red at the side of the next building. I let it pull me that way, twisting a bit so that I landed feet-first against the wall, the gravity boots keeping me in place. Then I ran along that wall a few steps before using the voice code to make the wheels of my skates pop out. As we rolled toward the edge of the building, completely sideways, I called back, “Hope you’re ready back there, Miss Lion. 

“Cuz we’re about to have some fun.” 

*******

I didn’t go too nuts, of course. I kept my promise to avoid flips, for one thing. There might have been inertial dampeners in the bag, but I wasn’t sure how well they would stand up to going completely upside down. And I definitely didn’t want to test it with Lion in there. That felt like a really bad idea. Or at least a good way of ending up with an incredibly dizzy mouse. 

But I did make some long jumps and showed off a little, making sure Lion was okay after each one. She seemed to be enjoying herself, so I played it up a little more as we got closer to Wren’s place. Something told me she probably didn’t get out like this that often, so I wanted to make the whole thing memorable for her. Preferably without making her sick. 

Taking a moment at the end to make sure no one was close, I made my way through the alley leading up to the back of the shop while telling Lion that we were almost there. “Before you meet Trevithick,” I started, “there’s something about her that I should probably tell you ab–” 

“Paintball!” The back door of the shop was already open as we approached, and Wren came flying out. Literally flying, with her wing pack. As promised, she was wearing a costume… of sorts. It consisted of a sleek black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels along her arms, legs, and chest, and matching black helmet, covering her entire head and face. A pink-tinted visor ran across her eyes. 

She flew right up in the air at eye-level, and grabbed my shoulders, staring at me through that pink visor. “Didja bring her, is she here? You weren’t fibbing, were you? She’s really coming?” Her gaze was darting around excitedly, like a kid anticipating Santa’s arrival. Which, for a Tech-Touched like Wren, being able to talk to someone like Lion probably was a lot like Santa. I had a feeling there weren’t too many people the kid could talk shop with. 

Laughing a little despite myself, I nodded. “First of all, you really threw that together in ten minutes? And it’s okay, she’s here. Lion, this is Trevithick.” 

There was a very brief pause before Lion’s voice emerged, “It is ahh, a pleasure to meet you. Quite a pleasure. May umm, may we go inside so that it can be face to face?” 

Realizing she was in the bag, Wren gave a delighted squeal. She spun three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, all the way around in the air. Then she did it again, only that time it was a full forward vertical flip rather than a simple sideways spin. “Come on, come on!” Inverting in midair, she flew right back through the open doorway while calling back for us to follow her. 

Clearing my throat, I managed, “Like I was gonna say, she’s young. But really effective.” 

“I-umm, I believe you,” came the response. “From everything I’ve ahh, heard, her age is no detriment to her skill. She is the uhh, one who built the forced movement suit?” 

Right, of course she would know about that. Lion probably had contacts within all the Star-Touched groups to have learned about what we did with Ashton. Plus, she was clearly friendly with Lucent from the Seraphs, and they knew plenty because I’d ‘borrowed’ a piece of their technology for the suit. 

So, I nodded while heading to the door, not wanting to make Wren wait so long that she spontaneously combusted or something. Only belatedly did I realize that nodding was dumb, because Lion couldn’t see my head movements. Flushing a little inwardly while silently thanking the fact that no one had seen that, I spoke up. “Yeah, that’s her. She’s umm, she’s done a lot.” 

For a brief moment, I actually considered asking for her advice about Paige. But I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Not that she wasn’t trustworthy, probably. But it really wasn’t my place to go exposing Paige like that to someone she didn’t even know. After all, with my secrets, how would I feel if one of the others took it upon themselves to tell someone else about them? Even if they thought the person could help, I’d still feel pretty shitty about it. 

So no, unless Paige said it was okay, I wasn’t going to get into all that with her. It wasn’t my place to make that sort of decision. Besides, I still needed to ask her what the deal with her older sister was. 

By the time I shook that thought off, we’d entered through the back door. Immediately, I saw Wren hovering over by one of the tables full of junk, clutching the side of it with both hands while literally vibrating in midair. She was hovering there, staring without moving any closer. Because, I realized, she was literally holding onto the table to stop herself from lunging my way and demanding once more to meet Lion. 

Oh yeah, and the others were there too. Fred stood in the background, watching with a wary, uncertain expression. He wore no costume at all, of course. Meanwhile, Murphy and Roald stood on either side of him. In their case, my two…. helpers wore their ski masks. Apparently they weren’t on board with exposing their identities to Lion. Which was fair. Not that it would be impossible for the little mouse to figure out if she actually investigated Wren’s shop at all, but still. 

Apparently Peyton wasn’t here yet. If she was smart (smarter than me, at least) she’d be using this chance to sleep in and relax.

Rather than torture Wren any further, I stepped over to the nearest table and slipped the backpack off. As I put the thing down, a little slot in the front opened and the guest of honor hesitantly poked her nose out. She snipped cautiously once, twice, then stepped into view. Her small head was darting around rapidly, looking almost panicked as she took everything in. By contrast with her rapid motions, her voice was actually fairly calm (at least as calm as she seemed to ever sound). “Ah, hello. It is uhh, my pleasure to meet another… ahhh… Tech-Touched such as you, Miss.” 

A rush of fear ran through me that Wren was going to squeal or scream and lunge that way, terrifying the poor mouse. But she actually seemed to understand what a bad idea that was. I saw her physically take a breath, then lower herself back to the ground before taking a few careful steps closer. “H-hi, Miss Lion.” Oh, and she sounded nervous, rubbing the back of her new helmet and squirming. “I’m… umm, I’m Wren. It’s really nice to meet you. Oh, that’s Uncle Fred.” She gestured that way. “And those are… uhhh…” She trailed off, as both she and I realized we weren’t sure what to call the other two if we weren’t giving away their names. 

Murphy, however, was on top of it. She gestured to her friend. “That’s Calvin. I’m Hobbes. Don’t mind us, we just clean up around here. Umm, Miss Talking Brilliant Mouse Lady.” Much as she was still trying to keep her cool and sound disinterested, I could tell it was all Murphy (or Hobbes) could do not to have a little squealing fit of her own. 

While Lion politely thanked everyone for greeting her, I heard Roald quietly hiss, “Calvin and Hobbes?” to Murphy. 

“Look,” she hissed right back, “that was what jumped into my head. It was that or Yogi and Boo Boo. And guess who would’ve been Boo Boo.” 

Smirking a little despite myself, I turned my attention back to Lion and Wren. “So, you guys cool to talk some shop here while I run around for awhile?” 

“Oh, oh yes.” Lion assured me. “I ahh, I believe we will be quite fine in your absence. 

“There is quite a lot I would like to speak with Miss Wren about.” 

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Winging It 19-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Do you think Peyton’s okay?” Izzy asked the next morning while the two of us were sitting up on the roof overlooking the grounds. We both had our knees drawn to our chests while we ate a couple bowls of cereal and enjoyed the fact that we weren’t in immediate life-threatening danger. And, even though it had been most of a day since all that happened, I enjoyed the whole actually being able to move thing. Yeah, being paralyzed really wasn’t fun. 

After letting Flea know about everything yesterday (or at least as much as we could say), we had contacted Caishen too so she knew what was going on and what we had found out. Then the rest of us simply let the adult teams do their thing. We’d done quite enough by that point. And quite frankly, we all needed a break. That-A-Way and Raindrop had to go back to the Minority base to give a full, official report. And Peyton had definitely wanted to go home, shower, and recover from all that. I took a run with her across the city first, both of us stretching our legs and just making sure we could move properly, before I let her head home. Then I did the same thing, which had led to like an hour-long hot bath that I had fallen asleep in, followed by an actual nap in my bed. Then dinner, a rush of getting weekend homework done, some goofing off with Izzy once she showed up, and more sleeping. Yeah, I was exhausted, right down to my bones. 

Now I’d slept enough. God, I’d needed that though. More than I’d even known. 

It was Sunday, so most of the first staff had the day off. There were still a few weekend workers around, including one of Claudio’s peers, since he and his two assistants (Ethan and Christiana) would be gone all day. And honestly, it had practically been a fight between my parents and Claudio to get the chef to let someone else work the kitchen so he could have the day off. He had a thing against people, as he put it, bumbling around his space, fondling his instruments (that’s what he called it), and making a mess. If he’d had his way, he would’ve worked every single day. But Mom and Dad insisted he have a day off. Granted, that day off changed frequently, but he was keeping to the letter of the rule if he took one day off per week.  

In the end, he’d only even agreed to that much when they allowed him to choose his substitute. Which had amounted to going around every five-star restaurant within the entire state and making them audition for him until he found someone he was satisfied could handle coming in one day per week to work the kitchen without totally destroying it. And yes, he still wasn’t all that happy about the idea. He cursed and made threats every time someone brought up the idea of his taking two days off. Cooking was Claudio’s life. It was what made him happy. For him, it wasn’t a job, it was what he loved. 

Chewing and swallowing the cereal in my mouth, I offered a shrug. “Peyton? Yeah, I think she’s okay. I hope so. I just… I wish we could have eased her into things a little better instead of making her deal with… all that.” A grimace found its way to my face. Yeah, that definitely hadn’t been easy. But we got out of it. “We would’ve been in a lot more trouble without her.” 

“She knows that, right?” Izzy shifted a bit to look at me. “I mean, she should already, but you told her how helpful she was? You know, so she doesn’t umm, start thinking she didn’t help.” 

My head nodded vigorously. “Oh, believe me, I spent like the entire run across the city after we left you guys making sure she knew just how grateful I was that she came with us. Seriously. I think I embarrassed her a little bit.” A snort of amusement escaped me at the memory of Peyton stammering that it was no big deal, before it turned into a lump in my throat. “Still, I wish she didn’t have to be involved in all that. She’s been doing this like, what, a week and she’s already been involved with going into Paige’s brain to deal with that, plus now she’s made personal enemies out of Cup and Pencil? She’s not even getting the chance to build up at all. We just sort of picked her up and threw her in the deep end.” 

Izzy shook her head, taking another bite of cereal and swallowing before she spoke. “You didn’t throw her into anything. You didn’t throw me into anything either. Or Way, or… or Pack. We make our own decisions, and we decided to help. It’s not your responsibility to keep everyone out of danger, Cassie.” After a brief moment, she added, “Besides, it’s not like you had the chance to wade around the shallow end for a long time either. Like, your very first thing with any of this was finding out… you know.” She gestured around us. “Where all this comes from.” 

The reminder made me blanch, swallowing hard before giving a very short nod. “Right, well I don’t have to like it happening to other people too. But yeah, I umm, I think she’ll be okay. I told her to take a couple days off and recover before we do anything else stressful.” 

“You think she will?” Izzy asked, sounding curious as she tapped her spoon thoughtfully against the side of her bowl before taking another bite.   

I shrugged. “I mean, she said something about going to Wren’s to help Murphy and Roald clean up. It’s not a total ‘day off’, but at least it’s not something horribly dangerous. I guess maybe I’ll go over there a bit later too, just to check on Paige and all that. Heh, maybe she’d like to hear about what sort of things I can get up to while she’s not around.” 

“You just want to tell her what you did while she’s still paralyzed and can’t choke you,” Izzy retorted while giving me a pointed look.

Flushing a little, I admitted, “That might be part of it.” A frown found its way to my face then. “God, it’s weird to talk about Paige at all without like… thinking about needing holy water and maybe a priest to make her stay away from me.” It really did do weird things to my stomach. There was so much history there between us. Hell, no wonder her being so… so awful to me for so long had actually affected me as much as it had. If I subconsciously somehow still remembered the fact that we were supposed to be friends, it would have hurt so much more than coming from a stranger. 

Seeming to know exactly where my mind had gone, Izzy reached out to squeeze my arm. “She couldn’t control it,” the girl reminded me. “She didn’t have a choice about any of it.”  

With a sigh, I started to say that I knew she was right, but my Touched-stuff phone buzzed first. Holding the bowl in one hand, I tugged out the phone to look at it. It was not, as I had immediately feared, a message about something terrible happening. Instead, the message was a news alert about Cup and Pencil. I had set this phone to monitor that sort of thing instead of my normal one, just to keep everything in my life as separate as possible. And just in case, I really didn’t want to explain to my parents why I’d set up a news alert for Scion-related stuff. Not that I really expected them to look, nor was it really impossible for me to explain wanting to know what those psychopaths were up to after the whole attack at the hotel and hospital. But still, just… best to keep all that separate so my parents had absolutely no reason to look at me at all. 

“What is it?” Izzy asked, shifting around a bit to be closer. “Is something wrong? Did–” 

“It’s a story about Cup and Pencil,” I replied, turning the phone a bit so she could see the headline while summarizing for her. “They did it. The authorities, I mean. They put out the whole story about who they are. Their real names, their pictures, their backstory and how they faked that whole thing with their murdered parents and the ‘original Pencil.’ All of it. It’s all here. Everything we told the adults. They really put all of it out there.” 

“Oh wow.” Izzy rocked backward a bit, swallowing. “I mean, I know we expected them to, but… but still.” She hesitated before looking at me seriously. “Those guys are gonna be so pissed off.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “They sure are. But at least now they can’t operate as easily as they did before, you know? They’ll have eyes on them everywhere they go under their normal faces. They can’t… can’t… wait…” I had scrolled down by that point, my thumb moving along the screen to find the image of Pencil and Cup’s real faces. Someone had put up an image of the two of them at a school function. I knew Amanda, of course. But this was my first time seeing Nick himself. 

Except it wasn’t my first time seeing him. 

“Cass?” Izzy stared at me, clearly seeing the look on my face. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” 

With a shaking finger, I pointed at the image on the screen. “I know him. I’ve seen him. I mean obviously I know Pencil. But him. He was… he was…” A shudder ran through me. “Back when I was looking for the vials for Ashton, I umm… I went out one night and saw the umm… the aftermath of one of the Scions’ sick little games at this gas station. A bunch of people died in there, thanks to… thanks to Pencil. I was standing there, and this guy came up in a jogging suit and demanded to know why no one ever stopped Pencil. He was… he was angry because we weren’t doing enough to save people.” 

Izzy’s gaze moved from my own eyes down to the image on the screen, then back again. “Him? It… it was him?” 

My head gave a quick, jerky nod. “Definitely. It was him. He was fucking with us. He was right there, demanding to know why no one ever caught Pencil, and it was him the whole time. It was him and–and we didn’t even–I didn’t even.” My eyes squeezed shut as I resisted the urge to hurl the phone as far away as I could. He had been right there talking to me. How did I just let him walk away after all that? How could I completely fail to see anything wrong with him? He walked right up to me, right up and just started talking. Was I stupid and clueless? I should have noticed that something was wrong. I should have paid more attention to him. There had to have been some sort of giveaway. If I’d just looked at him straight on, thought more about it, done–

“Cassie,” Izzy quietly insisted while setting her bowl down so she could lean over and put her arms around me. “It’s not your fault. Nobody recognized him. How could you? People don’t recognize you in your costume and all that either. That’s like… the point of a costume, you know? It’s the whole point of wearing a disguise. You had no reason to suspect that guy. Come on, you can’t blame yourself for that too.” 

“I know,” I admitted, still shuddering. “But I just–if I had–if we had. I can’t…” Exhaling long and low, I nodded. “I get it. Believe me. I just–he was right there. He was talking to me. It makes my skin crawl.” Belatedly, I added, “My dad was right there too, as Silversmith, I mean. He was there and talked to him too.” How was he feeling right now? Did he even remember that guy showing up and talking to us, or had it just faded into the background for him? How much did he even care about that? 

Okay, that really wasn’t fair. I knew he hated the Scions, especially after what they did at the hospital. Pencil and his gang weren’t under any sort of Ministry control, so he and Mom obviously wanted them taken out as much as anyone else did. I just couldn’t help those instinctive feelings. 

“If he knew, he would have stopped the guy too.” Izzy’s voice was firm. “Your dad might be… umm, not good. But he would have stopped that.” 

With a sigh, I nodded. “You’re right. I know. I know you’re right. Dad’s a lot of things, but he’s not… he’s not like that. They have rules and stuff, we already know that much. I just…” Taking in a long, deep breath before slowly letting it out, I murmured, “I really hope someone stops them now. I don’t care who it is, which side of the law they’re on. I don’t care about any of that as long as they stop those psychopaths.” 

The other girl nodded firmly, and the two of us sat in silence for a few seconds. Then, clearly distracting me from obsessing over that, Izzy asked, “You’ve got that other thing today too, right? Before you can help at Wren’s place.” 

The reminder made me smile just a bit despite myself. “Right, yeah. The other thing. 

“I get to go hang out with Bird-Dad.” 

*******

After leaving the house and making damn sure I was nowhere near it, I made the call to the Seraph’s headquarters and had them transfer me to Lucent so we could set up the exact time to meet. Apparently he wasn’t too busy, because he said he could meet within the hour, and asked if I was still okay with him bringing his friend. I said that was fine (I was curious about who this ‘friend’ of his was and why he thought we should meet), and arranged to be at the front gates as soon as possible.  

Heading over there, I kept my eyes open just in case. I wasn’t really expecting a huge problem, considering how many people had their eyes open for Pencil and Cup. They were probably pretty busy dealing with the fallout from that, but better safe than sorry. We were going to have to be careful, because as soon as those fucks decided to turn from survival and escape to revenge, all of us were going to be right at the top of their list. Which was just peachy. 

Eventually, I made it up there and landed in front of the gate. Matthew Orens was there, and I started to ask if he had the cover for the book, but the man interrupted. “Never mind that right now. You okay, kid? I ahhh, well, everybody heard about what happened. At least, what’s semi-public. And I’ve been around long enough to know that ain’t the whole story. You got those assholes’ real identities, and that can’t have been easy.” 

Blinking a couple times, I replied, “Uh, me being involved wasn’t in the official story.” That was intentional, we didn’t want quite that much attention. The Scions were going to be pissed off enough at us without throwing more fuel on the fire. As far as the regular media was concerned, their real identities had been discovered through the work of police and the Conservators. 

Orens gave me an easy nod. “Yeah, that’s why I said semi-official. Believe me, when you work around this many Touched, things have a way of getting around.” His voice softened a bit as he added, “But seriously, that had to be pretty rough. Glad you got out of it. Everyone okay?”  

“Yeah, we’re okay,” I confirmed, painting a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “I’m just glad they’ve got those guys on the run now. It won’t be as easy for them to walk around on the street. I mean, it won’t solve every problem. And things will probably get worse before they get better. And–damn it, this was supposed to be a positive thing. I should really stop talking.”

With a very light, almost humorless chuckle, the man assured me. “It’s definitely positive, that’s for sure. Still, you be careful out there. Not just for the Scions themselves. They’ve also got fans and wannabes. If they figure out what your involvement was, they’ll try to make a name for themselves by coming after you. You know, impress their heroes to get a spot on the team.” 

Blanching at the thought that there were people who actually wanted to impress those psychopaths, I gave a short nod. “Thanks, we’ll keep our eyes open. But hey, let’s get that book done. You said Josh’s birthday was Wednesday, right? We better finish that up.” 

He already had the pages I’d given him bound properly into a cover, and I took the time to make a cool picture on the front. Then I put a brief description on the back and added the finishing touch to the inside cover, a bit that read, ‘For Josh, from Dad, Paintball, and the rest of Avant-Guard. Happy birthday.’

Reading that bit, Orens raised an eyebrow. “Avant-Guard? You know it’s spelled–”

“Yup,” I quickly assured him. “We ahhh, we’re testing out a new name. What do you think?”

Reading it over again, the man considered. “Oh, it’s definitely unique. Shouldn’t have to worry about it being taken. You know how to sign up to register your team name and membership so the authorities know who they’re dealing with?” 

I didn’t, of course, and the man gave me the name of a website to go to that would walk me through it. Of course, it wouldn’t give any real authority or anything. Nothing more than what being accepted as a Star-Touched already gave. But it was a way of giving the authorities an easy way to check team membership and know who they were working with. 

After I thanked him, the man shook his head and smiled broadly while waving the book. “No, thank you, kid. This is perfect. It’s gonna be great, he’ll love it. And I meant what I said before. You really should look into taking some extra grammar and writing classes so you can do this sort of thing for an extra living. Pretty sure it’d give you all the free time you need so you can set your own hours. Give it a thought, you’ve got a few years.” 

As my face flushed a little bit under the helmet, I thanked him profusely and promised to check in later to see how his son ended up liking his gift. With that, I turned to the gate just in time to hear a voice pipe up from just above me. 

“Sir Orens is correct, my boy. You should be thinking of the future. One never truly understands just how fast time moves until far too much of it has already passed us by.”

Blinking up that way, I brought the big smiley face back and waved. “Hey, Papa! Fancy meeting you here.” 

Hopping down from the fence to land on top of a nearby trash can, Lucent gave me what I swore was a proud bird look. “I’ve heard all about how busy you’ve been, lad. I hope you take Sir Orens’ advice. Not merely his words about planning for the future, but about being careful as well. He is very correct. The fiends will see you and yours as fine targets now. And did I hear you and your allies have settled upon a group identity?” 

So, I told him about the whole Avant-Guard thing. He thought it was amazing, and said so. He even gave some ideas for logos and such, and we spent about five minutes or so just going back and forth on those thoughts before a voice spoke up from near the ground. “Excuse me?” 

Blinking that way, I found myself looking at a familiar, very tiny figure perched there on the ground. My eyes widened a bit and I immediately blurted, “Lion!” Yeah, it was the mouse TONI (TOuched Nonhuman Individual). Pretty hard to mistake a talking mouse in golden armor for anyone else. “Hey, how’re you doing? I didn’t know you were still in town. You–” Blinking from her over to Lucent, I managed, “This is your friend?” 

“That’s right.” Lucent flew down to land next to her. “She wanted to talk to you again. Or rather, she wanted to talk to your friend.” 

“My friend?” I echoed. 

Lion hesitantly took over. “The umm, the person who has been supplying you. We… umm… we think you have a Tech-Touched helping and ahhh, umm, if it isn’t too much of an imposition, I would like to umm… talk to… them? While you and ahh, Lucent here are busy.” 

For a second, I let the thought of that work its way through my brain. Lion and Wren having a conversation, those two collaborating and… and…

A smile found its way to my face, as I translated it into an even broader one painted across my helmet. “You know what? Yeah. 

“I think that sounds like a great idea.”  

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Commissioned Interlude 7 – Lion (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a commissioned interlude. The regularly scheduled (Heretical Edge) chapter will be out tomorrow as normal.

To any outside observers, the man striding casually across the semi-crowded floor of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport would not stand out in any way. He was of average height and build, his face entirely nondescript and clothing just dull enough to avoid attention aside from the simple glasses that he wore. There were no logos on his shirt, and they were clean without being obviously new. He wore his dark hair at average length, and offered faint smiles to those he passed without stopping for conversation. Not that many would care to strike up a discussion with the clearly incredibly boring figure who passed them. 

Nor would passersby be any more interested in the simple-looking backpack the man wore over his shoulders. There were no logos or patches on the brown and white bag, nothing that would give any indication that there was anything special about it at all. What appeared to be a very cheap padlock held the zippers shut, just as anyone moving through a public space like this would use. The bag, and the man who wore it, could have been any number of the thousands who passed through the airport every single day. To any who saw him, even those who paid attention, the man would disappear from their memory almost immediately. He was just another face in the crowd, one who did absolutely nothing that could make him stick out in their minds. 

That, of course, was entirely intentional. The man’s ability to blend in and attract no attention was specifically why Lion had hired him to begin with. And in these past couple of years, Jared Keene had become a very trusted friend. One of very few whom the little Touched-Mouse felt comfortable with taking her through a place as terrifying as this busy airport. 

She was in the backpack, naturally. And, like the man who wore it, the bag wasn’t nearly as simple and run-of-the-mill as it had been intentionally designed to look. Within the bag were three levels, separated by plastic dividers and slanted tubes that she could scurry up and down. The top level, just below the main zipper, was a bit of a watchtower. What appeared to be opaque cloth or leather material from the outside was actually easily see-through from the inside, like a fairly thin mesh that allowed the little mouse to peer through at the outside world. 

Meanwhile, the middle level was where her temporary living area was. Down there was a soft and warm nest to curl up in, her water and food, and a smartphone that had been set up to function as her main television. It wasn’t simply for watching movies or browsing online, however. It also allowed Lion to view the outside world through the cameras built into Jared’s glasses, or any of the several other cameras in the bag or his clothing. Or through the cameras of several small fly-shaped drones which automatically followed them from various distances.

All of which meant that at any point, she could look in any direction to see what was around them. It was, again, the only way she could feel even slightly comfortable in a place full of as many dangers as an airport. Or any public space. 

Then there was the bottom level of the bag. That was the smallest and most protected section. It was essentially a safe room, surrounded by a thick, reinforced metal that would stand up to almost any level of abuse up to and including being in the middle of an explosion. From inside that small space, Lion could employ any of the dozen weapon systems and other defenses the backpack contained. She could also call in the fly-drones with their own attack capabilities.

Many would have called all these measures completely paranoid and unnecessary. A hired (and highly skilled) bodyguard intentionally made to look as nondescript as possible, cameras facing in every direction, a secret panic room that was harder to break through than almost any actual bank vault, tiny fly-robot drones capable of putting a grown man down within a couple shots, and more weapons built into the bag itself. Most would have said all of that was patently unnecessary when one was simply walking through an airport to board a plane. 

To those people, Lion would have pointed out that… they were people. Humans. Tall and strong compared to her. She was literally a mouse. At the absolute best of times, she was vulnerable to people stepping on her because they either didn’t see her or did and panicked. Even if they recognized what her golden armor meant, some would still lash out. Either because they hated Touched-Animals like her, or thought it was funny because they didn’t see her as a real living, thinking creature. She was perfectly and painfully aware of how many humans thought of her and those like her as abominations. Some thought TOuched Nonhuman Individuals (or TONIs) were connected to Abyssals somehow, or that all of them were Abyssals or would become them. Others believed their god dictated that animals ‘cursed’ with intelligence be purged. 

And that wasn’t even counting the people who would try to actually abduct Lion to work for them. Her Tech-Touched ability to design elaborate structures and defenses would, after all, be an incredible boon for any Fell-Touched who wanted a new base. Or simply eccentric rich people who didn’t want to commission and pay for her designs, but still wanted her work. 

The point was, between everyone who would accidentally or casually kill her, those who would intentionally do so out of maliciousness or religious fanaticism, and those who would abduct her to work for them, Lion had every reason in the world to be careful. Especially in a place she didn’t visit often, like Detroit. In her home of Seattle it might have been different. People knew her there, and she knew them. It was much safer to be seen. But here, in this place? She would take no chances. 

But despite all the dangers of the world that she was all-too-painfully aware of, Lion still enjoyed watching people. She didn’t hate the world. Far from it. She was simply incredibly cognizant of the dangers it held. From the safety of her secure backpack, the tiny mouse eagerly gazed through the mesh to look in every direction, trying to take in everything at once. Every person she saw had their own story, and she couldn’t help but wonder what they were. And more than wonder, she actually made up stories about them in her own mind. Seeing a beleaguered mother half-dragging her two protesting children toward the restrooms while an uncaring father trailed behind with his attention on his phone, Lion instantly made up names and an entire story for their lives. The family in this story went through a harrowing adventure aboard a hijacked airplane that brought them together and made them much stronger in the end. 

While Lion was focused on trying to decide whether the mother and father in her story would be the one to land the plane in the end, the voice of her bodyguard/driver quietly spoke up with a simple, “Ahead.” That single word was almost more of a cough, but she caught its meaning.

The moment he said that, Lion scrambled in a circle, pivoting as fast as her tiny paws would allow. A second screen built into the back of the bag up on this top level showed the view through Jared’s glasses, and she immediately saw what he was drawing her attention to. Or rather, who. Approaching them was a Native American woman in casualwear, simple jeans and a dark hoodie. Yet Jared and Lion knew her immediately, despite the fact that she wasn’t wearing her normal costume of dark blue and white army camo and tactical helmet. This was Mika Holt, known to the rest of the world as the leader of the state-sponsored Star-Touched team of Spartans. And also, more importantly, a friend. Mika had, after all, been the one who introduced Lion to Lucent after the two had been online contacts for some time. 

“Hey, Jared,” the woman greeted, “and company. You mind if we find a place to chat for a minute? I know your plane doesn’t leave for another hour, and this shouldn’t take long.” 

Lion, of course, agreed by reaching out to touch a button beside the screen so that the voice from the speakers attached to her armor would be transmitted through the small button on Jared’s collar. “Ahh, oh, oh of course, let’s get something to drink. If, umm, if you’re thirsty.” The voice was soft enough that it barely reached far enough for the intended recipient to hear. 

A small smile appeared on the dusky-skinned woman’s face, before she gave a slight nod. “Sure, I know just the place. Expensive as hell and basically the only spot in the airport that isn’t fast food, but hey. It’s a place.” 

With that, she turned to walk, with Jared easily following. To anyone watching, this was nothing more than some random nobody guy meeting some random nobody woman and going for coffee at the horrifically overpriced airport shop. 

Choosing a booth at the back of the room, Jared and Mika both ordered their drinks and waited for them to be delivered before putting the privacy screen up. It was essentially a wall of colored light that surrounded the booth and kept all conversations within private. Popular, for obvious reasons, with businessmen trying to make last-minute deals before catching their flights. 

Only once the drinks were there and the shield had been raised did Jared carefully set the bag on the far side of the table. By that point, Lion was ready and waiting, and a small slot appeared for her to scramble out. Casually hopping from the opening in the front of the bag to the table, the armored mouse peered upward to the woman who sat nearby. “Ahh, hi there, Mika.” 

The woman, in turn, asked, “Biscotti?” With that, she snapped one of the treats in half and set part down for Lion before taking a bite of her own piece. “Heard you really helped Lucent out with his little project for the upgrade of the Seraph building out there.” 

Taking a little nibble of the treat while Jared carefully prepared a saucer with some of the tea he had ordered, Lion gave a quick nod. Her tiny nose sniffed the air, taking in every detail of the area surrounding the table and the dozens of people who occupied the restaurant beyond their private booth. “Ahh, oh, yes, well I’m just glad he found it, ahhh, helpful? Ahh, did… did he say so?” Even as she answered, the sound of a glass being set down a little too hard three booths away (where the privacy screen had not been put up) made Lion pivot quickly, nose sniffing frantically. Danger! Danger! No–no danger. No, just a somewhat clumsy waitress who apologized. No predator. No problems. No death. Still, she kept a wary ear that way while taking another quick nibble of the biscotti. 

“He did,” Mika confirmed. “But he didn’t have to. It’s sort-of your specialty, my mane friend.” The pun was accompanied by a wink before the woman casually added, “Well, that and secretly directing the affairs of an entire universe.” 

Mice didn’t blush. But if they could, Lion would have right then. Squirming a bit, she didn’t respond immediately. Instead, she turned to the saucer of tea Jared had set down, leaning in to lap from it briefly. Only then, once she had assured herself that the drink was perfect (as usual, Jared knew what he was doing), did the small mouse turn her attention back to Mika. “Oh, ahh, I only write some stories here and there.” 

Her words were met with a disbelieving raised eyebrow. “Write some stories here and there? Is that what they call being one of the primary writers and directors of canon for a multibillion dollar franchise? You know they’re saying the new movie is going to break records again, right?” 

Lion, of course, simply shrank back into her golden armor a bit from the attention. It was true. Much as it would have surprised people to know that the simple privacy booth in the corner of the airport restaurant held the Touched-Mouse known most for designing incredibly high-tech defensive structures, it certainly would have floored them even more if they were to realize that that same mouse was responsible for writing several of their favorite science fiction novels over the past several years under various pseudonyms. Specifically, three books within the Outlanders of Reach series. And that, since her first book in that previously-established universe had come out, she had been secretly made a consultant for shaping the direction of the overall narrative. She was credited as one of the screenplay writers under the name Eve Titus, writer of the old children’s novel series Basil of Baker Street (which Disney had turned into the movie The Great Mouse Detective). 

Very few people knew of her work, given the names she used. Only three or four people within the publishing and production companies knew the true identity of their director of canon and the author of several of the most successful books in the series. Which was how she wanted it. Because if the public knew, Outlanders would suddenly become the series written by a mouse, rather than being judged on its own merits. And she desperately wanted those works to stand on their own. Her Touched-designs were one thing, but knowing she could write stories that people enjoyed based on nothing more than actually enjoying them was priceless. 

It was no real surprise that Lion was so involved and knowledgeable of the Outlanders universe, or that she loved writing so much in general. After all, before his untimely death in the same event that had given Lion her intelligence and powers, the tiny mouse had been the personal pet of the original creator of the books, long before they were turned into movies, comics, a toyline, and more. Aaron Nodgers, the man who had written the first books over two decades earlier, had kept Lion right next to his desk and often spoke of everything he was writing at the time.

Of course, she hadn’t understood any of it at the time. The man’s words were nothing more than sounds. But they were comforting sounds that came from the man who fed and cared for her. And once the… tragedy happened, once poor Nodgers was killed by the man who broke into their home before her orb appeared and changed Lion’s entire existence, she finally did understand the words. She understood the things he had said when he picked her up in his enormous hand and cooed at her. She remembered and understood every word he’d spoken to her in the privacy of their little home. 

It was that hindsight understanding of everything her owner and first friend had been telling her throughout their time together that really instilled the love of writing and of the Outlanders universe within Lion. Being able to direct his vision now the way she believed he would have wanted, that was worth more than she could ever possibly be paid for it. 

And that was the other half of the reason she didn’t want her work in that fictional universe to be known. Because ‘a Touched-Mouse wrote the new stories’ would be all anyone knew about them. They would never understand or remember that the stories had originally been created and written by Aaron Nodgers, and Lion would rather die than take over his legacy like that. Outlanders was his baby. 

“I–ahhh, I’m glad people like the stories,” was all she could manage, shifting a bit to look toward Jared with a slightly quieter, “You said it was doing okay.” 

The man, in turn, offered a very faint smile, completely unabashed. “It is. I’d call breaking records doing okay.” 

With a small chuckle, Mika put in, “You keep teasing her like that and one of these days, she’s going to find a way to replace you with a robot. Then where are you gonna be?”  

Jared, in turn, simply replied, “Maybe I’ll find out if the hive in Oregon needs an errand boy.” 

Making a soft squeaking sound of distress in the back of her throat, Lion quickly assured the man that his services and friendship would always be needed. Then, after taking a few more nibbles of the treat, finally asked the woman across from them, “Ahh, umm, did… did you really just want to talk about the uhh, movie until it’s time for the plane?” 

Sure enough, Mika shook her head. “Actually, I was kind of hoping to talk you out of taking that plane.” Once she let those words penetrate and knew that she had the mouse’s attention, the woman pressed on. “You might’ve noticed we’ve got a bit of a rising war going on between a few of our gangs. I’m afraid it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, so I had a few ideas about setting up some defenses around the jails and some other areas. I was hoping you might stick around and offer advice. For a regular contracted fee, of course.” 

Pausing, she put a hand out, flat against the table close to the mouse. “I know you want to get home. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. I just–something tells me the fighting here is gonna escalate beyond what other people think. We could really use an edge, and I think you’d be a good one to have.” 

Lion, for her part, was quiet at first. Mika was right, she did want to get back to her own comfortable (and very well-fortified) home. But how could she walk (or be carried) away from a request like that? How would she ever live with herself if she left and found out people died here in Detroit because they weren’t protected the way she could protect them? 

So, after considering for almost a full minute while the two humans watched her in silence, Lion gave a short nod. “Cancel the flight, Jared. 

“We’re staying in Detroit for awhile.”

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Trust 15-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so I had… dinner plans, I supposed. Too bad I couldn’t tell my parents where I was going. Having dinner with Caishen, Skip, and Lightning Bug might actually have impressed them. Or maybe not, considering my whole idea that they could be connected to the Ministry. Maybe Caishen was just another one of my family’s secret minions. Hell, for all I knew, this entire thing was an elaborate ruse to pick my brain or try to figure out how much I knew about them. 

Maybe I was being a little paranoid. But wasn’t that better than being not paranoid enough? 

Either way, I was definitely going to keep my eyes open. But seriously, I did want to see the kid again, and if Ten Towers was part of the Ministry or connected to them in any way, cultivating a relationship was the best way of finding that out, right? Right. Maybe I was talking myself into a dumb idea, but at that point I couldn’t exactly refuse the invitation without looking even weirder. 

“Weird is better than exposed,” Izzy informed me as the two of us sat at an old wooden picnic table near the corner of her new school’s front yard. She’d gotten out of her final class early, since they were finishing up some kind of project she couldn’t participate in, so we were waiting for a few minutes until Jefferson showed up. Which was good, since it gave me time to explain the situation and go through my whole probably slightly-crazed thought process with her. 

This whole ‘saying the crazy things happening to me out loud instead of bottling them up forever’ thing was really something. It almost felt as though I was letting out enough pressure that sticking a balloon in my ear wouldn’t actually blow it up. Which was just crazy. 

Of course, I still felt bad about involving someone as young as Izzy in the whole thing in the first place. Which was kind of partially replacing that whole stress thing. But hey, baby steps. 

Now, she was looking at me. “I mean, better to look weird and paranoid than to actually be exposed, right? And better to look like you’re being a little rude to Caishen and them than to accidentally tell your parents exactly who you are. You can’t take something like that back.”

“No do-overs,” I agreed grimly. “The second my parents even start looking at me suspiciously…” I swallowed hard then, shaking my head. “You’re right, but I can’t just totally turn them down. I’m pretty sure that’d attract some questions too. Especially now that I agreed to it. Besides, Skip helped save my life.” And I really didn’t want her to be part of the Ministry, though I didn’t add that part out loud. From the look Izzy gave me, I didn’t need to. 

“I’ll be careful,” I finally promised. “No confiding in them, no exposing my face or anything just in case. Even with their ‘privacy measures.’ I can push the visor up and raise the mask enough to eat.” 

“New question,” Izzy put in then, “where are you gonna tell your parents you’re eating?” 

Considering that, I hesitantly started with, “Tonight’s not family dinner, so it won’t be total war for me not being there. I can come up with an excuse about eating out with friends or something, shouldn’t be a big deal. Mom’s pretty cool about that kind of thing as long as we show up when we’re supposed to.” Glancing toward the other girl, I added, “But are you gonna be okay there?” 

“You mean am I gonna be okay being there alone without you after everything you said?” With that, Izzy swallowed hard, seeming to shrink in on herself a bit. Her voice was smaller. “Yeah. I can keep it together.” She took a breath, focusing on me. “You can trust me, Cassidy. I won’t fuck up and expose you, or any of it. It’s okay. I mean, it’s not really okay, but… yeah.” 

“I know what you mean,” I assured her. “And I trust you. But there’s a difference between trusting someone and knowing that something is a lot to deal with. So believe me, if you have to walk away from dinner, just tell them it’s been a long day. I mean, brand new school and all that, after everything that happ– you know, now that I say it out loud, you probably don’t need to fake anything. How are you doing with all that? The more mundane stuff, I mean. This place.” 

Following my glance toward the school behind her, Izzy offered me a shrug. “It’s okay. I didn’t really talk to a lot of people or anything. I mean, it’s April. School’s out in a couple months. Everybody’s already got their friends and their everything. Plus, I’m not umm…” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I’m not really rich or anything. Everyone in there knows I’m just this poor nobody on a free ride.” 

Blinking at that, I scooted over on the bench and put an arm around the girl, squeezing her close to me. “You listen to me. First, you are not a nobody. You do more important things in one day than most of those kids have done all year. You’re a fucking superhero, Izz. And free ride? You do know those kids were born rich, right? Just like me. You think I did anything to earn the money my family has? Neither did they. If anyone, anyone’s going to that school on a free ride, it’s them. They’re like me. They got handed everything they ever wanted, pretty much. What the hell did they do to deserve a spot at that school, be born? That’s luck, not achievement. Everything you’ve got, you earned. You worked for it. You deserve every bit of success and help you get, and anyone who tries to say you don’t can go fuck themselves, okay?” 

With a tiny smile, Izzy shook her head while leaning against me a bit while teasing, “That was really poetic. Go fuck themselves, I should write that down.”

“Damn straight you should,” I agreed, poking her side with my free arm. “Izzy, I’m the most privileged rich kid you’re ever gonna see. Seriously, think about it. My parents are billionaires and they control both the crime and the police in the city. Most of it, anyway. The point is, you can’t get much more privileged than me. So, speaking as the… Princess of all Privileged Fucks, never let anyone tell you that you don’t deserve to be in that school.” 

Before Izzy could respond to that, Jefferson pulled up. He didn’t honk or anything, because he expected us to be ready to go. With a quick glance toward one another, the two of us hopped up and headed to the car. On the way, Izzy murmured quietly, “Thanks, Cassie.” 

Then we got in and headed for home. And I spent the next few minutes wondering how this whole dinner at Ten Towers was going to go. Not to mention the Paige thing, which was an ever-present thought at the back of my mind. I still had to decide if Eits was the best person to trust with that. Or even the only person, cuz really, who else was I going to ask who was more trustworthy? Maybe a Star-Touched from another city, but then we’d have to take Paige there and explain… well, maybe that would work? Find some doctor and tech person as far from Detroit as possible, hide Paige’s actual identity, and take her to them? 

Boy, I was really grasping at straws, wasn’t I? Where the hell was I going to find someone willing to do all that work on Paige without knowing anything about her? If nothing else, anyone with the skill to help her was definitely going to have the skill to know there was a lot going on with her. So they’d probably have a lot of questions. Questions I couldn’t answer. 

Then again, I couldn’t answer questions from Eits either. And even if I did trust him, we still needed to have someone who could open the body up to get to–argh. It was a lot. I kept thinking a good answer to this whole situation would just pop into my head or something, but thus far I was getting nowhere. My only real comfort was that Paige would be okay. She was basically in a coma or whatever, just like… sleeping. So until we actually found a way to fix the girl and bring her back, she’d be fine the way she was, right? 

Yeah, that was something. But still, this was a lot to deal with. Plus there was the whole situation with the Ministry base under the mall that we still had to find a way to break into, and–yeah, I had a lot to deal with. Nothing new there. 

But hey, at least I might get a decent dinner and some interaction with Lightning Bug out of this one? 

*******

A couple hours later, I was on my way. Well, sort of. There was another stop that I had to make before heading over to Ten Towers. I’d taken some time to draw up some more pictures for the son of that guard guy at the Seraphs, Matt Orens and I wanted him to sign off on them. I hadn’t put them together into a full book yet or anything, but they were still some nice drawings. 

Seriously, it might not have been on the same level of amazing as hurling myself from roof to roof throughout the city, but being able to draw this well just by thinking about it was still pretty damn cool. It was a more mundane cool, and yet also one I could actually share with people as myself if I was careful. Amber and Jae already knew, for one, and they didn’t think it was weird. 

It was just neat to be able to picture something in my head and then make a perfect real picture on paper. Whether I did it with my paint or by literally drawing it, the pictures looked amazing. Like my imagination jumped out of my head and reproduced itself on the page. 

Orens wasn’t out there by the gate when I stopped by, but he was on duty and they said he’d come around. While I was waiting, Patchwork strolled out, shouting over her shoulder that she was going for food and if anyone felt like dying in the time she was gone, they better do it without fucking calling her. When she saw me, the woman stopped, looking at me through that green visor that matched her spiky hair. “Stopped by to do more work, kid?” 

“Uh, not exactly.” I shook my head. “But I’ll be back, promise. As soon as possible. Uh, tonight maybe. Yeah, tonight if I can swing it. Things just got… crazy.” 

“They’ve got a way of doing that,” she drawled. “Just be glad you ain’t a healer. That’s a good way of–” She turned a bit, half-shouting over her shoulder, “Never getting a goddamn minute to yourself, motherfuckers!” Then she pivoted right back to me. “Anyway, just make sure you show up and do some work soon, before Hallowed or any of the bigwigs get antsy. Plus,” she added slyly, “your dad misses you.” 

“Oh my God.” Hanging my head while fighting back a fit of giggles, I eventually managed a weak, “Is that still going on?” 

“Stronger than ever,” she informed me, sounding far more cheerful. “Especially since some completely terrible person or persons have been fanning the flames with pictures of you visiting the place and talking to him.” 

Squinting at her through the helmet, I was about to ask if she was that terrible person. But I was interrupted by a very small voice hesitantly speaking up. “Um–ahh, excuse me.” 

I blinked, looking toward Patchwork, then around behind me, then to the nearby guard, then back to Patchwork. She was pointing down, and I glanced that way to see a tiny mouse, a bit away from my foot. This was no ordinary mouse, though. She wore gold armor covering most of her body save for the head, with what looked like a tiny, also metal backpack of some kind. A pair of what looked like bluetooth earbuds were attached to either side of the mouse’s body just behind her head, which was where the voice was coming from. “I’m so sorry to ahh… umm, interrupt.” 

“Oh!” I blurted, taken aback. “It’s okay, I mean–wait, you’re… Lion.” I wasn’t dumb, of course she was a mouse. But her name was Lion. She was a fairly well-known Toni (TOuched Nonhuman Individual), but she didn’t live or work here in Detroit. Lion was based in Seattle. And she took ‘based’ to another level, because her whole thing was designing incredibly elaborate and powerful defensive structures. She made bunkers, basically. Bunkers, prisons, I’d heard she’d had a big hand in helping to design upgrades for Breakwater, actually. The point was, she was really good at creating defenses. 

The mouse’s tiny head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir, that’s ahhh, that’s my name. It’s a umm, pleasure to umm, finally meet. I mean pleasure for me to meet you, I don’t ahhh, know if it’s a pleasure to meet me, I wouldn’t want to umm, speak for you or anything.”

“Trust me,” I assured her while crouching to be closer. “It’s definitely a pleasure. But what are you doing here in Detroit? You’re not moving here, are you?” Immediately, I regretted the phrasing, amending, “I mean, everything I’ve seen says Seattle loves you.” 

Sitting back on her haunches, Lion peered up at me while shaking her little head. “Oh, ahh, no. No, I still live in Seattle. It’s my ahh… it’s my home.” I was pretty sure I could see her gulp repeatedly before the tiny speakers behind her head continued. “I’m just visiting my ahh… my friend Lucent, to consult on something.” 

“Oh. Well, cool. Hope you work it out with dear old pops,” I couldn’t help but say. 

There was a brief pause from Lion, before I heard a sound that I belatedly realized was a giggle from the little mouse. She seemed to relax just a little, though from her voice was still obviously on-edge. From what I’d heard, that was basically how she always was. The mouse whose entire power revolved around creating incredible defenses was basically eternally nervous. 

And who could blame her? She was tiny. She had plenty of reason to be anxious within a perfectly normal, mundane world, let alone before you added in superpowers and villains and all that. 

“It’s ahh, it’s going well, I think,” her quiet and uncertain voice piped up. “But I saw you out here and just wanted to say hi. And ahh, and ask if you were okay with the umm, the… joke that’s going on. But you seem okay, because you made the same joke.” 

“Believe me, I’m fine with it,” I assured her immediately. I avoided adding that my father secretly being Lucent would, in several ways, be better than the alternative. Which was a thought that I immediately regretted for the rush of conflicting feelings of guilt that flooded in. But I pushed all that back, adding, “He seems like a pretty great guy–err bird. Guy bird? Guy still works, right?” 

“Works for the rest of us,” Patchwork put in. “Hey Lion, you wanna help me pick up some grub? Pretty sure you and Lucent have been down in your hole playing techy games all day without basic necessities.”

There was a brief pause as the tiny mouse seemed to regard the much larger woman for a moment, before she agreed with a thoughtful, “I… am rather hungry, ahh, I suppose. But are–are we being rude?” Her voice was suddenly worried as she looked back to me, nose sniffing frantically. 

Quickly, I shook my head. “Thanks, I’m good. I have dinner plans already. Over at Ten Towers, actually.” 

“Oh yeah? Tell bug-kid hi for me,” Patchwork replied before holding out a hand. “Let’s go, Nala.”

She didn’t reach all the way down to pick the mouse up. Instead, the little backpack attached to Lion’s armor opened up, and a thin metal bar, about as long as a pencil, poked out. The top of it started to glow, and what looked like an arm made of solid energy appeared. Not a little arm either, this was a full sized human arm with a hand attached. The glowing energy hand grasped Patchwork’s, then retracted to pull Lion all the way up so the woman could catch her with her free hand and put the mouse on her shoulder. 

From her perch there, the TONI waved with her big energy-form hand. Her voice squeaked, “Goodbye, Paintball. I… I hope we can talk again.” 

“Me too,” I quickly agreed, then thought quickly. “But umm, hey, could I ask you something, actually?” My mind was racing with an idea of how to get into this without giving everything away. 

The mouse tilted her head, watching me curiously and expectantly until I went on. “Um, I have this friend who helps me with a bit of Touched-Tech stuff, but they wanna stay super-anonymous. So they were wondering if there was a way to like… if there was an established method of hiring Touched-Techs where both sides stay private.” 

Yeah, hiding my actual question about whether there was a way for me to anonymously hire a Tech-Touched behind asking if there was a way for my Tech-Touched friend to anonymously hire herself out wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was the best I could think of on the spot. 

“He means without getting Glitch and her Braintrust on their ass,” Patchwork translated for me. 

“Oh.” Lion gave a quick nod. “Um, well, yes there is. If umm, if you go to the Sphere forum, search for threads with the title ‘Looking For A Carpenter’, find the most recent, and post a message there under any account, you’ll get a private message to set something up. The ahhh, umm, the first message will ask if you know a friend in metalworking and you say you know a sculptor. Then you’ll be able to ask about anything you want for your friend. It’s all very quiet.”

“Thanks.” I wasn’t sure if I’d use that or not, but it was something. And hopefully hiding it behind the Trevithick thing had covered me well enough. 

Seeing her glowing forcefield-like hand still there, I gave Lion a high-five, then waved before turning as Orens made his way out. I’d think about that whole forum thing later. For now, I had to talk to this guy, then head out. Considering how late it was getting, I was pretty sure it would be time to go visit Ten Towers once I was done with this bit. 

Honestly, I couldn’t wait to see Lightning Bug again, after that first brief visit. She was a fun kid. 

And hey, at least I didn’t have to worry about any more problems showing up while I was in the middle of one of the strongest compounds in the city and surrounded by Star-Touched and armed soldiers.

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Patreon Snippets 16B (Summus Proelium)

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That-A-Way’s First Experiments With Her Powers, Just Over One Year Ago 

“Okay, what the hell?!” Amber O’Connell blurted in the privacy of her own bedroom, while the speakers from her computer blared out music from Spotify to ensure her mother wouldn’t hear what she was up to. She was standing by the door, staring very intently at a spot by the closet directly across from her. “Work! Come on, you did it before! What the fuck, did I get a defective orb or something?” 

The Summus Proelium sphere. That’s what it was. That was the thing that had appeared earlier that day, while Amber was losing her mind over the realization that all the work she’d put into finding the person who had killed her father in a hit-and-run was useless because the car had been stolen. So the owner wasn’t responsible. It was a total dead-end. She had been… not dealing with that very well, when the sphere appeared in front of her. She’d touched it, seen visions of herself, her dad… her poor dad. She saw the car that had hit him, the man she thought was responsible, she saw everything she’d done to track him down, all for nothing. 

Then she’d come out of it, stumbled forward, and in an instant, she had been a hundred yards away. She’d teleported. She had absolutely, totally teleported! 

But now she couldn’t. She was standing here, where no one could see her, and her power just wouldn’t work. Was that it? Had her power been something like, ‘teleport one time?’ What bullshit was that?! How was she going to find her father’s killer if her powers didn’t even work? 

Annoyed, Amber stalked forward while throwing both hands up in the air. How was she supposed to use a superpower that wouldn’t listen to her?! Was teleporting hard? She’d focused on it as much as she could for the past five minutes, but nothing happened. Not even a flicker. Why didn’t it work?! In frustration, she brought both fists against her closet door. 

And her hands went right through it. Through it as in through it, as if the door wasn’t there at all. The door was still intact, but her hands were… were like ghost-hands. Wait. Eyes wide, the dark-haired girl slowly extended both arms, sticking them further through the closet. 

Behind her, the bedroom door started to open while her mother called, “Amber, what’ve I said about blaring your music so–” 

Spinning, Amber lunged that way with a gasp. And, in the next instant, she was there. She was right next to the door. Teleport. She had teleported again. Also, her hands were solid, a fact she found out quite suddenly as she banged into the door to stop her mother from barging in. “Sorry, Mom!” she blurted. “I’ll turn it down.” No way was she going to explain all of this right now. 

After a quick back-and-forth where Amber promised to gather her laundry and bring it down, her mother left. With a sigh, the girl shoved the door shut once more and turned. “Okay, teleport. Since you’re working again, let’s go.” Once more, she focused on the spot by the closet. 

Nothing. Again. A long, heavy groan of frustration left her. “What?! Why–what the hell?” 

Okay, wait. With a thoughtful frown, Amber walked forward toward the closet, still trying to focus on her power. Her hand rose and extended, until she walked right into the closet door… and passed through it. Her hand was in the closet, sticking through the door like it wasn’t there. 

She couldn’t teleport from the entrance of her room to the closet, but she could… turn intangible? And if she went from her closet to the bedroom entrance… Amber looked that way and focused again. 

There. She was right there, by the bedroom door. She’d teleported across the length of her room with a thought. So what the fuck? Why could she do it in one direction but not another? What sense did that make? And why was she intangible going the other way? What? 

Turning back toward the closet, Amber focused once more. She thought about using her power and stepped forward while slowly putting her hand out toward the end of her bed. And just like that, she was intangible again. Her hand passed through the foot of the bed like it wasn’t there. 

Okay… she turned to look at the bedroom door, only to yelp as her hand abruptly jerked away on its own. It had gone back to being solid and automatically snapped away from the bed it had still been inside of just because she turned–wait. Just because she turned to face the other way. 

A thought sent her from the bed over to the entrance to her room. Teleport. Turning back the other way and focusing on her power, she was intangible (a fact that was proven as she waved her hand out to the side and made it pass through a shelf full of trophies and pictures). 

Right. She could teleport, but only when going one specific direction? Was the direction from her bedroom door to her closet the same way she’d been facing when she’d teleported the first time? It had to be, right? And facing the other way, toward her bedroom entrance, she was intangible. But why? Why did she have one power facing one way and a different power facing the other way? Gluegirl (the hot super chick on the New York Conservators that Amber’d had a crush on basically since she’d figured out she liked girls) didn’t have to worry about things like what direction she was facing. 

Wait, more importantly, did it work in other directions? Did she have teleportation through a hundred and eighty degrees  and intangibility through the other hundred and eighty? Curious, Amber stepped to the middle of the room, facing the closet. She did an about-face, turning to her right at exactly the midpoint between the closet and doorway. Taking a breath, she focused again on using her power. The problem, of course, being that she wasn’t exactly sure what the power was. Would it just be teleportation or intangibility again? Curious, she put a hand out toward her desk. Nope, solid. Definitely solid. Then she focused on staring intently at the spot by the window. Teleport… teleport… nothing. Right, so she didn’t just have the two powers. There had to be something else, but how was she supposed to guess what it was? 

With an annoyed sigh, the girl took a step toward the window. And suddenly, she was slamming face-first into the window. She hadn’t teleported. No. She had actually moved through the entire space to get there, she’d just done it incredibly quickly. So quickly that she’d actually crashed into the window and bounced off it with a yelp. 

Hold on, hold on! Scrambling to her feet, Amber turned to the door, thinking hard about the hallway outside her room. 

She was there. She’d faced the bedroom entrance, thought about it, and was suddenly on the far side of the door, in the hallway. 

Oh fuck, that was really stupid. If her mother had been standing there, what–shit. She’d been so intent on testing this out that she hadn’t even thought about that. Luckily, however, her mother had gone back downstairs. Amber was alone in the hall. 

Turning to face the same way she’d been going when she’d bounced off her window, Amber hesitated just for a second before launching herself into a sprint. Once again, she was incredibly fast, crossed the entire distance, past her parents’ bedroom, the sewing room, and the upstairs bathroom all in an instant before bouncing off the wall at the far end. She yelped, falling on her rear at the top of the stairs. 

“Amber?” Her mother called from below. “What’re you doing up there?” 

“Nothing, Mom!” the girl blurted, hurriedly picking herself up. “It’s fine, I’m fine, I’m just–” Under her breath, she finished, “–a fucking superhero.” 

Wait, wait. What about the other way? Looking back the way she had come, Amber thought about it. Intangibility when she was facing her closet. Teleportation when she was facing the entrance to her bedroom. Superspeed when going toward the stairs at this end of the hall. But what about going back the other way? 

Well, shit. After another five minutes of focusing and walking back and forth, she still had no idea. She had a sense of something happening. There was just a feeling she got somewhere in the pit of her stomach when her power was working. It was there when she was fast, when she teleported, and when she turned intangible. And it was definitely there when she was facing the other way. But as to what it actually did? No clue. None. She definitely couldn’t fly. And how weird would that be anyway, being able to fly but only in one direction? Probably only slightly weirder than only being able to teleport or run superfast in one direction, come to think of it. 

Either way, she had no idea what moving that direction did. Which was just dumb. How many Touched got powers and couldn’t even figure out what one of them did? 

With a sigh after failing for another ten minutes at deciphering the power, she headed downstairs. She’d been smelling cookies for awhile. Getting some sugar and chocolate, that would help her think about how to figure this out, right? 

Seeing her mother down the hall in the laundry, Amber called, “Hey, is it okay if I grab a couple of those cookies?!” The whole time, she kept focusing on her power, trying to see if anything would happen. 

“Is it okay if you what?” Her mother prompted without turning around as she sorted the clothes. 

“Please,” Amber added, restraining the urge to roll her eyes. 

“Yes, take a few,” came the answer. “But leave enough for the Moensens, I’m taking some over there in a couple minutes!” 

“Kay!” With that, Amber moved into the kitchen. There, the cookie sheet was on top of the stove. Full of delicious, delicious chocolate chip scrumptiousness. Reaching out, she tapped the metal pan once to check the heat before picking it up and turning with it to grab a plate so she could slide the cookies she wanted right off onto it. 

Fucking owww! The second that Amber turned toward the island counter, the metal tray in her hand abruptly turned burning hot, and she yelped while dropping the pan. 

The cookies and pan were falling. But they were doing so incredibly slowly. Speed. Her speed, she was facing the right way to have speed, and it had kicked in. In a rush, Amber forgot her burned hand, quickly grabbing a nearby oven mitt from the island. She had time to slide it onto her hand, grab the pan, and quickly right it while catching all the falling cookies before any could hit the floor. 

That done, the girl turned back to the stove and set the pan down once more before staring at it with wide eyes. Hot. It had suddenly turned hot as soon as she wasn’t facing this way. Did that… did that mean…? 

She reached out without thinking about her power. She’d been focusing on it the whole time she’d been in the kitchen, so intent on trying to figure out what the power actually did while facing that way, that she hadn’t even thought about using it while picking up the pan. 

Fuck! Hot! Without focusing on her power, the tray was too hot to touch. But then she focused on it once more, getting that feeling in the pit of her stomach. And once again, the tray wasn’t hot at all. Did… did that mean her power when facing this way was ‘immunity from heat?’ 

No, wait. Hold on. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure her mother wasn’t around, Amber reached out to grab a knife from the nearby drawer. Taking a breath and letting it out slowly, she once more focused on her power while touching the knife to her own arm. Gently at first, but with gradually increasing pressure. 

It worked. Or rather, it didn’t work. The knife wouldn’t cut her. 

She’d figured it out! Invulnerability. She had teleportation when moving one way, intangibility the opposite way from that, superspeed when moving a third direction, and she was invulnerable when moving the opposite way from that. Four different powers when moving in four different directions! She finally had it! Holy shit, she had superpowers and she knew how to use them! 

“Oh fuck,” Amber managed, while staring at the tray full of rescued cookies. 

“What the hell am I gonna name myself?” 

 

********

 

Lucent 

 

As the sun set, and the streetlights began to glow, a single dark-colored bird perched atop one of those lamps. There were identical bird figures atop the roof of the nearby pharmacy building, on the edge of a railing across the street, atop another streetlamp a block away, and on the ladder of a fire escape in the alley between the pharmacy and the building next to it. 

None of those other figures moved. But the first, the one atop the light directly in front of the pharmacy itself, cocked his head to the side, studying the doors below, then the street in either direction. From the perspective of anyone down there, he would be almost invisible in that position, perched above the light. 

That near-invisibility grew even stronger as the dark raven’s feathers abruptly shifted color. What were once black turned a silvery-gray to blend in with the lamppost. At the same time, the motionless bird figures shifted to match the color of their surroundings as well. Then there was peace, the only sound being that of the cars passing by below and a few pedestrians hurrying to their own vehicles to get home. 

That relative calm was interrupted by the sound of a voice cackling, “Hehe, hey Luci, heard you’re a proud papa now.” 

The voice was only audible through the tiny earpiece, hidden under his feathers, that Lucent wore stuck gently but firmly in the hole. The earpiece conveyed sound through the various communication networks the Touched raven was linked to. In this case, it was a personal channel, one that he and other Touched animals throughout the country were a part of. Some of them were more active talkers than others, some used a text-to-speech program to talk, and some didn’t say anything at all. They simply listened. Lucent understood those last ones. They found it hard to find the right thing to say, but still wanted to be a part of the Touched-animal chat room to stave off the loneliness that came with being part of the few non-human intelligent creatures on the planet. Touched animals of any kind were rare to begin with, so any individual would at best have a few others of their species. Some had none at all, and lived their lives as the only member of their kind with intelligent thought. 

The one teasing him through the com, in that moment, was a member of that last type. His name was Postal, and he was an alligator living in Florida. The only Touched alligator that was known to exist. Beyond his enhanced intelligence, Postal’s powers allowed him to mark any target he was looking at. As long as he continued looking at that target, any non-melee attack that Postal was aware of could be redirected to it rather than to its intended destination. This included gunshots, ranged powers, even such simple things as thrown balls. In addition, Postal could mark a single target that any ranged attack would veer away from. This he didn’t need to constantly look at, but the effect would fade if the marked target left his general area. 

“You have been reading the Sphere… forum again, I presume?” Lucent calmly replied, pitching his voice to be quite low. The pause in the middle came as he took a breath. He wasn’t wearing the device on his beak that often projected his words. As a raven, one of the few animals in the world who could physically speak human language without extra technical aid, Lucent didn’t actually need such a device all the time. But it made extended conversations easier, as given his small size, he lacked much lung capacity for speaking long sentences without taking a break to breathe. 

In this case, however, he’d wanted to blend in and look like any other bird for anyone who had been watching him approach this place. There were rumors that one of the Fell-gangs was going to make a move on the pharmacy he was perched outside of, and Lucent was determined not to let another shipment of much-needed medical supplies disappear. The other bird-like figures perched around the street were part of his own power. Essentially, they were statues whose heads could move to look around. Lucent could shift his own vision at any point to see through their eyes in order to watch more of the surrounding area. In any combat situation, the statues could also project concussive blasts from one eye and lasers from the other. 

“Sure have,” Postal confirmed that he had been reading Sphere. “How come you never told me you had a bouncy bundle of joy in the world, huh? Really bouncy, from the sound of it.”

For a moment, Lucent didn’t respond. He was watching a pair of figures at the far end of the street, half-hidden in a doorway. He’d thought they might have been suspicious, just standing there in the shadows. Then he realized they were rather involved with one another, physically

“Well now,” he abruptly replied while instinctively puffing himself up a bit, “‘Twould hardly be… appropriate to put such a… son in the spotlight before he… was properly raised, would it?” Again, he had to pause now and then to take a breath. 

That raised a few comments from other Tonis (TOuched Nonhuman Individual) in the chat, including Lion, the Tech-Touched mouse from Seattle who designed elaborate defensive structures. She’d been too busy with a recent project and had no idea what they were talking about. So, in a way that made it clear he was leaning into the obvious joke, Lucent explained the ongoing theory amongst those in the Detroit section of the Sphere forum that the newest (very human) Star-Touched was secretly Lucent’s own son. 

After more teasing back and forth, there was a soft chime followed by the sound of Lion saying her name, an alert that she was inviting him to a private chat. He accepted after taking another look around to ensure the area around the building was still clear. 

“Lucent?” came the always hesitant, nervous voice of Lion. “I ahh, I know you joke about it. But how’re you doing with this whole son thing? I know you… that boy you used to be with in that theater, before you were Touched…” 

“Bradley,” Lucent managed, as a wave of pain washed over him. Bradley was the son of the man who had actually ‘owned’ Lucent before he gained his intelligence and powers. It was Bradley who cared for Lucent the most, who ensured he was fed and played with him. The two had been nearly inseparable for a couple years, living in an old, yet well-loved theater where Lucent had originally learned to speak by mimicking the old medieval-style language spoken in the plays the theater’s owner (and Bradley’s father) was so fond of. 

The boy had been about the same age that this Paintball must be, when tragedy had struck. Tragedy that resulted in the destruction of the theater, the deaths of many people including poor Bradley, and Lucent gaining his new powers and intelligence (and later, a new name, as he felt the old him had died back then with his best friend Bradley). 

“Ohhh, oh, I’m sorry,” Lion lamented. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m so sorry. I just–I wasn’t sure how you were–I wanted to–” 

“Tis quite understandable… dear miss,” Lucent quickly assured her. Nervous and skittish as Lion was, particularly about reaching out to people, he didn’t want to make the tiny mouse feel bad. “Little as I know this… Paintball, I do believe he… is a fine and upstanding young… man whom my Bradley would… have gotten along quite well with. He’s a strong, smart… creative lad. Being seen as… in any way responsible for that… even as mere jest… is a fine honor and one I… look on with pride.” 

There was a brief pause, before Lion tentatively asked, “You’re sure you’re okay with it?” 

“Aye,” Lucent confirmed. “Lad’s a true hero. And I hardly fault… others their fun. My only concern is for… the boy himself, and his feelings. But from all evidence… he would find it as amusing as I.” 

“Maybe you two should find a way to play into the joke,” came the mouse’s quiet suggestion. 

“Mayhaps we shall,” Lucent agreed, before going silent as a dark sedan approached the building. It turned down the nearby alley, and he shifted his vision to the statue he had parked on the fire escape there to watch as men in masks began to step out of the car once it had come to a stop. 

“Ah, pardon me, milady,” he informed his conversation partner while pushing himself off the lamppost, taking to the air on silent wings. 

“Duty calls.” 

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